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Category: Politics

Not out of ideas 1: Civil servants on hamster wheels

Wow. I got an email today from someone commenting on a couple of suggestions I wrote up a little less than 2 years ago. I think they hold up pretty well, I mean. It was written in the wake of the 2011 general election, so some of the more topical suggestions may not be so biting, but given that the government has not implemented ANY of my suggestions (come on, people), I think it’s far to reiterate my call for a better Singapore.



A Manifesto for a Better Singapore

Or the only way left is up.

“Truffles steamed and served in diluted Milo taste like shit”. – Yeap Choon How

Anybody with half a brain can see that our government is delivering us to hell in a hand basket, knocking on the gates of Pandemonium, and personally hand-delivering a message to Satan asking him to bugger us repeatedly with a pitchfork. Sometimes they try to convince us that we are not actually headed to hell; we are actually on a trip to Disneyland, or a Justin Bieber concert! Sometimes, they don’t even bother and just tell us that we’re going to see the Satan and if we complain, we’re terrible terrible people. Either way, we generally tend to obediently nod, bend over and take off our trousers.
Not anymore. This manifesto outlines a suite of policies that offers a real alternative that promises equal opportunities for all by sharing the fruit (not fruits, dullard) of our prosperity in this period of uncertainty.

Welfare: Transforming the civil service
One thing the PAP says over and over again is that Singaporeans are self-reliant. The second thing the PAP says is that in this period of uncertainty, Singaporeans definitely need strong government to weather the storm. The third thing the PAP says is that we should stop slouching, remember to wee-wee if we really need to and take breaths at regular intervals.
This party avoids this contradiction: we do not believe that Singaporeans are self-reliant at all. A truly democratic government listens to its people, and our people are saying that they want money. Hence, we propose that we give a lot of money to a lot of people, as (1) they need it, and (2) we want to be re-elected. We promise to be responsible about this money, and propose that we pay for this hand-out by eliminating all civil servant and MP pay, reducing carbon-dependent energy by 20%, and buying a lot of hamster wheels connected to electric generators. About as many hamster wheels as there are civil servants and MPs in the country. We finally have a use for the party whip.
We are all in this together. Civil servants, the dedicated servants of the country they are, are happy to sacrifice some of the benefits they have enjoyed in the past to power the country through these uncertain times. The reason we choose our beloved and well-respected civil servants for this task is comparative advantage. After all, they do have company gyms and fruit vouchers. We reassure our civil servants that their beloved hierarchy of power will be preserved in this new arrangement: the hamster wheels will differ in size and build.
Our party is committed to developing local talent for careers in the civil service, but we are arguably more committed to giving people money in exchange for votes. We justify this using a utilitarian ethic: giving a lot people a lot of money generates more net happiness than giving some students too much money. The civil service must not be afraid of change. It must develop capabilities, foster mindshare and maximise value-add. Hamster wheels are an indispensable part of the civil service of the future.


The Singaporean Conversation

As an immigrant, I have been rather taken aback from the viciousness and anger expressed against foreign workers in the aftermath of the bus drivers’ strike. In the comments left under the Straits Times article reporting the incident, some netizens turned to full-blooded attack, calling the drivers cockroaches, dogs, and demanding that they be sacked so the next batch of cheap labour can continue running their city’s transport system.

It was a terrible thing. The recent turn towards xenophobia is just another example of a strange trend in Singapore: the rhetoric is getting more heated, the debate more vociferous and the “vocal minority” more clamorous. Sometimes it just looks like bullying to me. But this, I am told by reliable sources, is the result of a political awakening, an unfortunate side-effect of the realisation that Singaporeans don’t really like the smelly foreigners and their strange ways, and more importantly, the government and their foreigner-importing ways. Whereas in the past they might just make a private joke about how all Indians have dark skin or how the Chinese have silly accents, now they are making it very clear that they don’t like it very much and the foreigners should lump it. In an essay by my friend Yoong Ren Yan titled “Against reform: a call to arms“, he refers to the intensifying of the debate as Singaporeans “[dusting] off their collective docility”.

To be fair, the xenophobia is not my main point here (my thoughts about it here). Rather it is the strange way public discourse in Singapore has developed. Ren Yan is by no means a fire-breathing revolutionary. His position is simply that a mildly repressive and at times explicitly aggressive regime cannot be taken to be the chief authority in its own reform. Shaking his spear and donning his armour, he declares “We are not feedback-bots at the service of a benign arbiter-government. We are millions of independent minds making considered judgements about what our nation should stand for.” He calls for a public space independent of the government.

To this end, the emergence of the internet has been an immeasurable boon to dissenters (or grumblers) everywhere. Instead of complaining to a few friends in a coffee shop, the chronically angry can now express their distress on TR Emeritus or the Online Citizen. Critical bloggers and satirists like Yawning Bread and Mr. Brown are reaching more people than ever. Even those who cannot be arsed to construct a coherent argument can express their prejudices in a poorly spelt comment left under a news article or on their preferred social network.

It is fair to say that the internet has been a great boon to the opposition in Singapore (in this case, not only the political parties but the coalition of voters standing against the PAP), in part because it is not a medium that can be shut down by Lee Kuan Yew delivering a thinly veiled threat that he will break the writer’s neck. Whether it is a good reflection of what the people really think is another. (Like all opposition parties, Singapore’s are happy to pretend to be speaking for the common man when in fact there is no proof that this is true.) In an (unremarkable) article (I cannot seem to find it online yet) in the Straits Times (Online voices equals vox populi?, December 22 2012), Leslie Koh makes this point by calling the rigorous opposition community “a small but vocal group” that is set against “a silent majority”.

Here is the thing. I do not think Leslie Koh knows what the silent majority thinks. Neither does the opposition. Mr. Koh’s article is not backed up by any evidence at all, and in the absence of it, we can discount what he says. As for the claims made by the dissenters (for an example, see Yawning Bread’s “Singapore has changed; will the PAP change too“), explicit evidence, the 2011 GE results seem to suggest that at any rate over 60% of Singaporeans prefer the government’s beliefs to theirs. It is obviously fair to suggest that Singapore has its fair share of unfair election rules but to suggest they lead to majorities where the PAP has beat out their nearest rivals, WP, by almost a million votes is an astounding claim that requires more than speculation.

It seems to me that the crux of the problem is that no one really knows anything about what Singaporeans think. Or more precisely, we know what they think, but we do not how to respond because we do not know who thinks it, whether many think it and how the opinion was formed. This is a shame, because undoubtedly this information is necessary for a national “conversation”. For both sides, it will be good to know how the public stands and where the divides between the positions are. It will also give us a way to move beyond the state of the debate, which has mostly consisted of declaring one’s point with force and claiming that the other side does not know where it is at.

However, the people that should be most interested in telling people what they think is the public themselves, for it gives them voice like they never have had. This is a problem that is relatively unique to the Singaporean political scene: a lingering wariness of entering public discourse (preferring instead to make sharp remarks in the company of friends), a monopolistic press that is seen to serve as a mouthpiece for the government and a vocal online presence that is often discounted as a boisterous minority.

This is why I believe that it is time to introduce the practice of political polling into Singapore. It is a practice that is common in many countries, most prominently in the USA where politicians, who really need to be responsive to the changes in the electorate, and the press, hungry for more points of interest to report, have led to the flourishing of an independent polling industry.

It is hence not very inexplicable that there is no similar industry here; rather the surveys that are conducted are the work of local academics and statistics organisations. For one, it is unclear whether the market in Singapore is deep enough to support a natural polling organisation, given its small population. But more importantly, polls largely do not reflect anything very crucial. The PAP has such a comfortable lead that it really does not need to be very sensitive to feedback. In such a position, knowing more about what people think may simply be embarrassing rather than illuminating, which is why the PAP was happy enough to grade itself and submit its own scorecard. Similarly, I believe that polling will give the opposition similar uncomfortable truths about the popularity of its positions.

Given the way our Singapore Conversation is going, I think it is a good time to bring in the awareness of the greater picture and the attention to specifics a well-conducted poll can bring. For example, on the Singapore Conversation webpage, Ace Kay shares this sentiment: “bring back the Kampong spirit where people from all races and religions congregate and share their joy”. While it is a nice sentiment, I doubt this is the sort of feedback that will lead to effective change and a greater understanding of the policy preferences of Singaporeans. It is further unclear whether bringing back the Kampong spirit is something many people want. I for one am not too keen. We have no way of telling if it is simply the wish of the village idiot or the wishes of the greater part of the population.

In conclusion, the lack of an authoritative understanding of the thinking of Singaporeans on the whole and in context is one reason why to date we have been finding our political awakening loud, sometimes frankly offensive, and largely confused. The establishment of the practice of polling in Singapore can help to solve these issues, and if done consistenty can become a good reflection of the political views of Singaporeans. But for these firms to survive, they need patronage, and it is difficult to see what can support it at the present. Ultimately, the information will be of greatest value to the politicians themselves (if they have anything on the line at all), but also to websites that are interested in Singapore politics (The Online Citizen) and a competitive press that can use the data to editorialise and lead discussion more effectively. Until an effective ecosystem grows, it is difficult to see how polling can be supported (and supported it must be, as it must constantly pass judgment on the goings-on of government, not only when the government sees fit to listen to it), but this does not mean that it is not necessary and helpful to the country’s growing self-awareness.

Wonks and Huns

One word that has entered my lexicon through Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog is the word “wonk”, which means somebody who has devoted time to studying the details of an issue thoroughly. I conceive good policy-making as being built on wonkery, with people trying to salvage sense from the wreck of politicians’ rhetoric. However, the importance of this technical detail to the running of the government is a little problematic democratically, as few people will have the expertise to engage the issues if fields get too specialised. (This despite what Feyerabend says about the non-expert being more knowledgeable than the expert, which might be true in reality but not in appearance.)

So I’m really loving the new wonky element in the Occupy movement. They sent a 300 page letter to the SEC and now they are proposing things to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau including some rules that look like pretty good ideas. It is one of those things that make me feel like there is hope for the world and perhaps all history is a series of back-and-forth between evil power-mongers and heroic wonks, who like initiates into an order dedicated to a cause have sacrificed their social lives for the good of the world.

“Privilege” pt. 2

Reading the Facebook pages of some of the PAP’s ministers (how’s social media working out for you?), it seems clear that people are convinced that public service is a “privilege”. Now, as much as I disagree with the PAP on the issue of compensation, I think the use of “privilege” here is rather perverse. After all, the free market in its idealised state rests upon arguments that selfish motivations can lead to behaviour that benefit the public good, and perhaps, also that it is the most consistent factor that binds actors to a socially beneficial course. Insisting that public servants to rely on their own benevolence to keep them on the straight and narrow, however idealistically defensible it may be, is perhaps a little naive. And surely working long hours and public attention are indeed costs that come with the decision to be a public servant. So I am not sure that the issue of ministerial salaries should rest any more on ministers’ goodwill than the laughably egoistical notion that our ministers are as economically competitive as their pay cheques suggest.

Also, I appreciate the point raised by one NMP that this report is a technical fix, which is why we should not be dizzied by the size of the pay cut. Frankly, the pay structure before was ridiculous. Ministers could have been paid for 39.5 months of work in a year (which to my knowledge still consists of 12 months). On top of that, they are also paid a MP allowance. It also strikes me as a little strange that they would consider a comfortable wage 50,000 a month, which seems rather damning considering that most Singaporeans earn below a-tenth that sum.

Just two more disparate observations. First, one thing I like about the recommendation is the notion of a clean wage. Case in point: Chinese officials’ pay is notoriously low but everybody knows that they drive luxury cars and live in big mansions. The shortfall is made up for by corruption and favour taking (read Richard McGregor’s book for a good account). Second, on the other hand, paying people not to lie and cheat seems to be in fact internalising the deception, which is defensible on pragmatic grounds, but suggests that it is a pity that we cannot get less greedy people.

Punch and Judy

As usual, I have been less excited than most other people about Occupy Wall Street, and I’m again not sure why. I was partly wrong about Libya (I thought it would be far more long drawn war) so that’s a promising precedent. But I’m still waiting to be proven wrong about how hard it is to actually get a functional and democratic government working in the medium term. And about Occupy Wall Street. I’m quite troubled about its lack of a coherent direction. I don’t think the world some of them are advocating is particularly workable. (Although I would think it’s about as plausible and workable as the tax haven Tea Partiers are pushing.) My impression has been that this is a revolution about social justice and its long neglected place in our social compact. It is about people who have stuck to the system and found it held up by people with a blatant disregard for decency. If you were to come up with a set of goals, it would be something like:

1. Explore possible scenarios for a post-capitalist society.

2. Social justice in economic outcomes is more important than economic efficiency.

3. Unemployment matters.

4. Eradicate poverty.

5. Fix inequality.

6. Less professional lobbying.

My six cents.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

I notice the PAP has been criticising Tan Jee Say’s argument that Singapore should move totally towards services and drop our manufacturing industry. Now I disagree with Jee Say too, because I believe there is no inherent reason why manufacturing cannot exist in Singapore. But sometimes, the PAP is just lying.

1) “The services industry relies more on foreign workers than manufacturing does.”

Um. No. Note these two pie charts:

The point is, the absolute number of workers going into the services industry is larger than the number of workers going into the manufacturing industry. In fact, 56.5% of workers in manufacturing are foreign and 51.15% are WP holders. Only 25.91% in the services industry are foreign, even including all the maids in the country.

2) “United States and Britain regret letting their manufacturing sectors drop.”

Um. For one, importing hordes of foreign workers is not as easy for them. But the point neglects that these countries have better conditions for manufacturing. The US has lots of unused space (bigger than China with less than a quarter its population. Even Britain has more land area for manufacturing activity. This difficulty in achieving economies of scale is a serious impediment for Singapore’s manufacturing sector. So it’s difficult to see these cases as equivalent.

Obviously Jee Say’s proposal is a little silly as well. (what’s the beef with productive jobs -.- You’re a grown man, for god’s sake.) But Hng Kiang is equally silly.

Paper barricade

Basically, the debt ceiling says that you can’t do this, except that you can because you don’t do it, your economy will be destroyed in many horrible ways. In other words, it is not a credible way to stop debt. Here’s CBO via Ezra Klein.

I like to think of this sort of thing as moralising politics: doing something utterly stupid for the sake of looking like the good guys.

What about barriers to entry?

I’ve been keeping tabs on net neutrality for a while now, and it occurs to me that there is free-er entry into the market for internet services than there is for the ISP industry. In this case, surely the greater monopoly is the ISPs, rather than the internet companies. People can stop using google, uninstall their firefoxes, and start their own video sites with minimum cost, but mostly, they can’t really launch satellites to get their own internet. Am I getting the science wrong?

P.S. Perhaps there are brand barriers to entry, but since the internet gives us free access to information, the problem really sorts itself out to a large extent.

Wasp cake theory

Vic, who is so brainy that Igor will require two jars, has written this excellent article criticising Tin Pei Ling. Pei Ling, of course, is a candidate so vacuous that people don space suits just to get near her.

However, the PAP’s sheer idiocy in this matter gives one pause for thought. Can the PAP really be so utterly moronic as to believe that the ability to sign-up for facebook makes Pei Ling a viable candidate? (ans: yes) But I personally subscribe to the wasp cake theory:

Tin Pei Ling: humiliating gaffe or insidious plot?

Update: I realise that Tin Pei Ling might not be aware if the PAP is using her as a wasp cake! Oh the cruelty! Cynical, dastardly hypocrites using young, eager politicians as meat shields for their own incompetence!

Politics is not for me

I want to like a politician. I really do. I almost-kind-of like Obama. I thought I could like fictional presidents, like Jed Bartlet, and I almost do.

No such luck. They’re all idiots.